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Orthodox Christians attend Holy Light in Jerusalem under police curbs


Thousands of Christian worshippers filled Jerusalem’s Old City on Saturday (April 15) to celebrate the Orthodox Holy Light ceremony, under a heavy Israeli police presence that has drawn anger from churches.

Thousands of Palestinian Christians and pilgrims from around the world filled Jerusalem’s Old City on Saturday to celebrate the Orthodox Holy Light ceremony, under a heavy Israeli police presence that has drawn anger from churches.

The two millennia-old celebration, symbolising Jesus’s resurrection, usually draws large crowds to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City’s Christian Quarter in East Jerusalem, where Christians believe Jesus was buried.

But Israeli police this year have significantly limited access to the event, citing safety concerns.

After hours of anticipation, Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Patriarch emerged from the sealed empty tomb with a lighted candle, an act considered an annual Holy Saturday miracle before Orthodox Easter Sunday.

Worshippers passed the light from person to person, illuminating the darkened church as the crowd roared and bells tolled.

In contrast to previous years, when as many as 10,000 worshippers packed into the church, attendance was limited to 1,800 people inside and 1,200 more outside.

“These numbers are based on a safety engineer’s analysis,” said an Israeli police spokesperson. A statement by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate called into question the engineer’s conclusions.

Israeli police set up checkpoints at the entrance to and across the walled Old City, leaving thousands unable to reach the church.

Pilgrims and Christian residents of the Old City protested the large police presence. “This is our holiday and we should feel comfortable while celebrating,” said 25-year-old Christina Kurt, who lives in the Old City.

Steps away from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Shadi Dababneh, who could not cross through with his family, pulled up a livestream of the ceremony on his mobile phone.

“It’s almost here!” he yelled, as people around him huddled around the small screen. “Oh no, the video just froze.”

Minutes later the narrow alleyway filled with cheers and applause as young men raced through to disperse the Holy Light, followed by marching bands.

Hours before the ceremony’s climax, Palestinian Christians from the occupied West Bank and pilgrims from countries including Greece, Romania and Egypt had trickled into the Old City, facing barrier after barrier.

At one, pilgrims yelled “Christ is risen!” in Greek as Border Police officers pushed them several metres back, denying them access to the church.

In some areas, tensions escalated into violence. A video circulating on social media showed Israeli police beating a man and pushing away a Coptic priest who appears to try to intervene. In another video, officers chase a man along a crowded stairway before thrusting him against a stone wall.

Police said they arrested one suspect who assaulted officers, but Saturday’s event ultimately ended peacefully.

The churches said they would not cooperate with police restrictions, which they see as part of long-standing efforts to push out the local Christian community.

Some church leaders have voiced concern over what they describe as an environment of impunity in the face of rising acts of violence targeting Christians in Jerusalem.

Israeli police have been on high alert in recent weeks in the Old City as Christians, Muslims and Jews all celebrated holidays.

Police also faced criticism over a lack of regulation at a crowded Jewish pilgrimage site in northern Israel after a stampede there in 2021 killed 45 people.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem, which includes the walled Old City and its holy sites, after the 1967 Middle East War in a move not recognised internationally. It sees Jerusalem as its eternal and undivided capital.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state.

Related Galleries:

A view from the Mount of Olives shows the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 15, 2023. REUTERS/Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh

Orthodox Christian worshippers attend the Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 15, 2023. REUTERS/Oren Ben Hakoon
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